The moves that matter in essay writing

Word count: 400 words

Reading time: About 1.5 minutes

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help writers.

If you ever need to do some essay writing for senior high school or college/university, be sure to get yourself a copy of the book They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Persuasive Writing. (This small volume would also make an excellent birthday or Christmas gift.)

When I wrote a recent column on essay writing, subscriber Cecelia Munzenmaier posted a recommendation for the book and her suggestion was seconded by another subscriber, Cindy Lake. (Thanks for the tips, folks! I really appreciate hearing from readers.) I immediately put the book on hold at the library and, now that I’ve read it, am going to buy half a dozen copies. Yes, it’s that good!

The authors — a professor and a lecturer at the University of Illinois in Chicago — describe in painstaking detail how to contribute to what they call the “academic conversation.” As they put it: “The central piece of advice in this book — that we listen carefully to others, including those who disagree with us, and then engage with them thoughtfully and respectfully — can hep us see beyond our own pet beliefs, which may not be shared by everyone.”

The core of their idea is to present “templates” for phrases students can use to accomplish certain rhetorical goals in essay writing. For example, their templates for introducing standard views or beliefs held by others include:

Americans today tend to believe that _______

Conventional wisdom has it that _________

Common sense seems to dictate that _______

The standard way of thinking about topic X has it that _____

It is often said that _______

My whole life I have heard it said that _______

You would think that ____________

Many people assume that _________.

While the templates sometimes sound a bit juvenile or laboured, the real life examples offered in the book achieve the same ends in more sophisticated ways. The authors argue that students — who are frequently criticized for not being able to write — need to start somewhere, and that the templates help foster critical thinking. To quote the authors again: “While seasoned writers pick up these moves unconsciously through their reading, many students do not.”

If you know some students who need some essay writing help, getting them this book would be an enormous favour.

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